Eat Your Way Down the Garden Path
By Deborah Salomon
Sheri, Sheri, how does your garden grow?
Very well, according to the University of North Carolina Press, who is sending bubbly Chapel Hill author Sheri Castle across the South to promote "The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Market, Roadside Stands & CSA Farm Boxes."
That's a mouthful - but nothing compared with Castle's experience, doctrines, methods, stories and down-home common sense.
"It's the way I cook - produce driven," Castle says. "I don't go to the garden with a recipe. Instead, I use what's ready. This is the essence of Southern cooking."
Castle's book - the third "new" Southern cookbook published this year - once again illustrates how far the genre has come. Some say unrecognizably far. Whose great-aunt served ramp and potato soup with scallion and goat cheese muffins for Sunday night supper?
Who cares? Southern cooks raised on fried chicken, chow-chow and chess pie are as anxious as Tex-Mexers to move forward on familiar roads.
Castle has chosen the garden path, which allows potlikker greens and melted Tuscan kale to occupy the same chapter.
"I flock to farmers markets like some people go antiquing," she says.
She started young, in the mountains of Western North Carolina, eating traditional dishes and studying their provenance. Dialogue is as important to Castle as a seasoned cast-iron skillet.
"I enjoy a good conversation, even with strangers," she says. "To learn how people live and think, I have to see where they shop and what they eat."
After a few paragraphs Castle sounds like a neighbor.
While traveling (and eating) in Italy she had an epiphany on which she bases this first book: The pride of place is the heart and soul of a cuisine. Eat what's grown locally, in season.
Caveat: Castle's title "New Southern Garden...." allows that Southern gardens produce more than stereotypical Southern crops. Therefore, recipes globetrot.
Castle has always combined storytelling with food. She chose teaching and writing rather than becoming a restaurant chef. Her articles have appeared in national food publications; she has developed and tested recipes for other cookbooks. Her demos are legend.
Best of all, unlike TV goddesses, she formulates realistic recipes in her well-equipped but ordinary home kitchen, using a conversational style ("Funny how some people cringe at okra goo but turn right around and suck down raw oysters,") that often includes graphic advice: "Making vinaigrette is a balancing act: Too much vinegar will grab the back of your mouth and make you cough. Too much oil will coat your mouth ... like an olive-oil gargle."
Chapters are arranged alphabetically according to produce, beginning with apples and asparagus and ending with zucchini, a relative newcomer to Dixie. Meat is included - venison, turkey, beef, tuna, bacon, pork - as a side, or ingredient, making this an appropriate gift for the casual vegetarian. Condiments (a divine spiced rhubarb ketchup) and desserts (browned butter peach upside-down cake) sound achingly delicious.
Castle pushes the envelope with quirky Ocracoke fig cake with buttermilk sherbet, nearly instant radish pickles, watermelon and tomato salad, cola and boiled peanut baked beans and "killed" lettuce, which make an interesting read for folks accustomed to making reservations, not garlic custards, for dinner.
The book is constructed to lie flat on a countertop, a plus, although small, light type begs a page magnifier. Photos are clumped rather than accompanying the recipes.
Otherwise, the proof of this pudding is in the produce: fresh, with reverence and flair.
Y'all dig in.
Sheri Castle will bring her food wisdom (and samples) to the Moore County Farmers Market at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 23, followed by a talk and book signing at 11:30 a.m. at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines. Demos will be based local produce. For more information, call (910) 692-3211.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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